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Musk elevates Tesla's little-known fixer to steer past drama

Musk elevates Tesla's little-known fixer to steer past drama
Jerome Guillen, who has been promoted to automotive president at Tesla, is known as a skilled multitasker. (Eric Piermont / AFP/Getty Images)

Outside Tesla Inc., Jerome Guillen is hardly a household name.

But to some of the earliest, die-hard customers who bought Tesla’s first Model S sedans, a fixer is getting the promotion he deserves, and Chief Executive Elon Musk is getting help he desperately needs.

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On Friday, Musk announced that Guillen, the brains behind the Model 3 assembly line built, against all odds, under a tent outside Tesla’s car factory in Fremont, Calif., had been elevated to the new position of automotive president. The cobbled-together line was instrumental to the company finally delivering on a production target this summer — a feat that faded from the headlines largely because of Musk’s questionable antics. Almost a month to the day after publicly starting a short-lived effort to take Tesla private, he smoked marijuana with a comedian on a live-streamed podcast.

In Guillen, 46, Tesla has promoted a skilled multitasker who’s proved able to operate at the breakneck speed his abrasive boss demands. Some investors have called for the carmaker to find a Musk whisperer along the lines of Gwynne Shotwell — the chief operating officer who helps him run Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — so that the CEO can navigate his way back from a dramatic period that’s raised questions about his well-being.

“Jerome is great,” Musk wrote in an email to Bloomberg News, weeks before he announced the promotion. “He has made a huge difference to Tesla many times over.”

Tesla could use a difference maker to rebound from a chaotic period that’s sent its stock tumbling to end last week at the lowest close since April 2. Guillen’s promotion was announced along with a series of other personnel moves Friday after Tesla’s shares were battered by the fallout from Musk’s marijuana smoking and the exodus of two more major executives. Chief Accounting Officer Dave Morton gave notice last week that he was resigning less than a month into the job, and the company lost its head of human resources.

Tesla shares rebounded Monday, rising 8.5% to $285.50.

Guillen joined Tesla in the fall of 2010 as the program director for the Model S, Tesla’s breakthrough electric vehicle that laid the groundwork for the crossover Model X and more mass market Model 3 that followed. For some early customers who bought the Model S, Guillen became their go-to as the company struggled with growing pains.

Tesla lacked sufficient sales and service centers, meaning the company was delivering brand new electric cars directly to people’s homes. It was a process that worked well for the first few hundred deliveries in California but became a huge logistical headache once customers in remote pockets of the country were left waiting. Musk had Guillen add sales, service and deliveries to his portfolio.

Andrew Wolfe of Los Gatos, Calif., bought a Model S in the fall of 2012 and met Guillen at a meeting of Tesla owners in Fremont. Wolfe began regularly emailing Guillen, sending suggestions such as where in Silicon Valley the carmaker should consider opening additional service centers. He also aired frustrations with issues such as the lack of a Tesla loaner vehicle.

Wolfe still has the emails in which Guillen responded with polite appreciation for the feedback.

“Jerome has been around for a long time and is clearly trusted by Elon,” Wolfe said Sunday in a phone interview. “He has a history of being the guy they send in to deal with stuff going wrong.”

Former Tesla employee Neil Joseph, who led the Model S delivery program, reported to Guillen and sat at the desk immediately to the left of him for a roughly yearlong period that ended in 2013. Joseph recalls that Guillen typically arrived at the office by 6 a.m. and worked late into the evening.

“What rocked my mind every single day for that year I sat next to him was his ability to multitask,” Joseph said in a phone interview. After holding early-day calls with Tesla’s service, delivery and sales teams, Guillen would follow up throughout the day on their progress and to check on what help was needed. “The spreadsheets would become data that he would pass up to Elon every night,” Joseph said.

Tesla has struggled with executive turnover for years, in part because Musk is a demanding boss and the pace of work being hectic even by Silicon Valley standards. Guillen took a several-months-long leave of absence from the company in 2015 but returned in 2016 to lead the company’s semi-truck program. Shortly after Guillen’s return, Musk lauded his track record at Daimler’s truck division, where he oversaw development of the Cascadia heavy duty semi-trailer.

Tesla introduced its heavy-duty truck in November 2017. The company said it will begin production in 2019, but has yet to announce where it’ll be produced.

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“Elon recognizes that he can’t do everything himself,” said Gene Munster, a managing partner at venture capital firm Loup Ventures. “Promoting Jerome is a small step in what is a much bigger problem, which is retaining existing talent and recruiting new talent.”

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